It appears the winter hot stove is finally heating up, as players slowly but surely have started to come off the board. The Yankees completed the bulk of their business in one day, signing DJ LeMahieu to a six-year deal and Corey Kluber to a one-year pillow contract. Just under $6 million remains of the Yankees self-imposed budget while the 40-man roster is full, so the front office will have to get creative if they want to add to the still-vulnerable starting rotation. One player who could fit within these restrictions is Jameson Taillon.
The Yankees were linked to Taillon back in the beginning of December, as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported they held talks about the righty pitcher and Josh Bell. Brian Hoch reinforced these rumors last week when he reported that the Yankees were continuing to do their due diligence on Taillon. And with Mark Feinsand reporting yesterday that Jameson Taillon could be traded “in the next day or two,” and Jon Heyman reiterating that the Yankees are one of the interested suitors, what better time to fully investigate what the righty could offer?
Expectations must be tempered as Taillon is coming off his second Tommy John surgery since 2014, the latest of which also included surgery to repair a forearm flexor tendon. TJS is so commonplace these days that many players return to play at the same level as pre-surgery, however the outlook for players undergoing multiple TJS procedures is less rosy. According to a study published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, only 42.3% of pitchers to undergo UCL revision surgery (a second TJS) return to pitch at least 10 games in MLB, and those pitchers on average had shorter post-surgery careers and pitched fewer innings.
That’s not to say Taillon is fated to this outcome, as plenty of pitchers from Nathan Eovaldi to Chris Capuano to Joakim Soria went on to pitch effectively after their second TJS. It just means there is far more uncertainty as to how he will perform than a pitcher coming off his first TJS. Still, there are a handful of circumstances beyond his injury history that make Taillon and the Bombers an intriguing fit.
For starters, his $2.5 million salary means Yankees don’t have to shoehorn high earning players on their end of the deal to keep from exceeding the $210 million luxury tax threshold. Second, the Pirates have seemingly initiated a tear-down, trading Josh Bell to the Nationals and Joe Musgrove to the Padres. Looking at the returns from both those trades, it is possible the Bucs might not require MLB-ready players in return for Taillon. This gives the Yankees a chance to move players unlikely to contribute to the 2021 season — think Albert Abreu, Roansy Contreras, or Yoendrys Gomez — opening up 40-man roster spaces that are the probable impediments to LeMahieu and Kluber being officially signed.
What might Taillon bring to New York? He has only thrown 37.1 innings since the end of 2018, so there is not a lot of recent data to go off, however his 2016 though 2018 seasons are evidence of his upside. In that time frame, he was the Pirates’ best pitcher, going 27-21 with a 3.63 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.64 xFIP, 389 strikeouts and 8.8 fWAR in 428.2 innings.
He achieved this without elite stuff, instead relying on soft contact and good command to retire opposing lineups. He surrenders less than one home run per nine for his career, routinely sitting in the 80th percentile or better in barrel rate with well-above-average hard hit and walk rates. His league average BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB rate, along with the fact that his FIP and xFIP are lower than his career ERA suggest that he did not overly benefit from good luck as well.
As my colleague Joshua Diemert so aptly put it, Taillon is kind of like the poor-man’s Corey Kluber. He throws the slider and four-seamer about 30% each and the sinker and curve around 15% each, making him a true four-pitch starter. His fastball used to sit in the top quartile of the league, hovering around 95 mph, but it is anyone’s guess if the multiple Tommy John surgeries sapped any of that velocity.
Taillon’s best pitch is undoubtedly the curveball. It is the only one of his four offerings that generates a greater than 30% career whiff rate, and it consistently sat in the top quartile in spin rate. It also exhibits above average vertical and horizontal movement, and never exceeded an xwOBA over .220 since 2017.
Taillon feels like a perfect example of the kind of low-risk, high-reward moves Brian Cashman has pulled off in recent years. The acquiring cost is not likely to be high, he has a manageable salary and the upside is there. For what it’s worth, Steamer currently projects Taillon to make 24 starts, predicting an ERA of 4.55 and fWAR of 1.8 across 146 innings, so either they are overly optimistic or know something that we do not. While I am not ready to pencil him into the rotation, I am sure the Yankees would still be happy with that kind of production.
UPDATE: Looks like the Yankees felt Taillon was indeed worth a shot! They traded for him later on Sunday.